What Losing My Voice Taught Me About Listening

Darwin thought he had figured out how we humans emerged from the misty jungles. But language stumped him. In The Descent of Man, he speculated that language began as the grunts and beguilements of courtship, as a verbal form of competition among males. The very evolution of words, and the naming of things and ideas, was itself a brawl of the strong versus the weak. “The survival of certain favored words in the struggle for existence is natural selection,” he wrote.

I have learned, conversely to Darwin, that not talking is surprisingly pleasant and perhaps even beneficial to courtship.

Unable to talk above a wheeze, I sat through entire dinner parties, long walks, and car rides, just listening. Where before my brain would have whirred with the desire and need to speak and would have ransacked my mental archives for stories to tell or witticisms to impart, I just sat and absorbed. Energies and attentions were redeployed. Wonders ensued.

Not long ago, at a breezy dinner outside with two other couples, my wife of 27 years told several stories I had never heard before. I sat there slack-jawed. It turns out that when you don’t have an 18-wheeler passing you on the left, a person feels more at ease. I learned new things about her, and her parents, and the forces that shaped her as a child. “There was something about the total free-spiritedness of my parents that just made me yearn to go off to boarding school,” she said to a friend at the table, igniting a light in my head about her penchant for order.

Another friend told of how he’d been to the village in Sardinia that gave rise to the famous Mediterranean diet. People there enjoy the greatest longevity of almost anywhere in the world. “But when I got there,” he said, “I realized that what allowed them to live so long wasn’t just the food but also the strength of their friendships and the bonds of community.”

I said to myself, It isn’t just the olives, and that too was a delightful revelation. I felt replete on the drive home, deeply satisfied by all the things I had heard and all the things I hadn’t said.

I found this deep contentment in many settings. I had license to call people I hadn’t heard from in ages and say, “You do the talking.” I listened to friends joke and tell stories, and saw attributes in their gestures I hadn’t noticed before. On calls with our daughters, I marveled at the warmth and intricacies of the mother-daughter bonds.

A person is thought to be crazy when he hears voices in his head. The reality is, when left alone, we are all engaged in a steady monologue. We narrate our thoughts and flesh them out in language, whether spoken or not. To that extent, we are always talking to ourselves.

Monks famously take vows of silence. Saint Augustine understood the value of both simplicity and balance. His vow was not an end in itself but a way to clarify one’s thinking and to minimize diversion. I was a failed monk once at a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka. I arrived with two white outfits made of simple cloth and nothing else. We never ate after two in the afternoon and were allowed to speak only in the evenings. During the rest of the day I did battle, unsuccessfully, with the voice in my head.

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